This story takes place before Rachel’s story, Rich.
After some bullying, schedule manipulation, and the promise of cake, Elle managed to get her team together in the conference room in order to pick names for Secret Santa. As she’d expected, they were thrilled at her plan.
Once the groans had faded, Ryan piped up: “What’s the point? We all have everything we want. Hell, whoever picks Rachel’s name is stuffed. She could buy England if she fancied it, and we all know she won’t be impressed with a pair of socks.”
“For the love of Prada, if anyone in this room buys me clothing, I will set it on fire.” Rachel pointed at Callum. “His idea of fashion is owning forty identical Henley shirts. Megan shops at stripper outlet stores. And you”—Rachel’s lips curled at Elle—“you buy your clothes from dump shops.”
“They’re called recycled clothing stores or vintage shops,” Megan said.
It was noteworthy that she took issue with the dig at Elle’s wardrobe but brushed off the stripper reference to her own.
“You’re missing the point. Secret Santa isn’t about the cost of the gift. It’s about the thought behind it. It’s about it being Christmas and showing each other how much we care.” And she sounded like a Hallmark movie. Any minute now, she’d trip, bump her head, get amnesia, and wake up in a picturesque town in the Cotswolds being cared for by a widowed, yet stunningly handsome and bizarrely single, veterinarian…
“But I don’t,” Rachel said in her clipped upper-class accent. “Care, I mean.”
“We know,” Megan said. “But there is some evidence to the contrary. Which is why we let you into our girls’ club.”
Rachel stuck her nose in the air. “There’s no evidence, and I don’t want to be in your girls’ group.”
“She lies like breathing,” Megan said. “I wish I could do it that smoothly.”
“I hate shopping,” Ryan grumbled around a mouthful of cake. “Especially at this time of year. The shops are full of angry, vicious women who’ve been storing up their rage all year and can’t keep it in any longer. Last year, Julia sent me to the shop for yet another whiteboard for her office, and a woman elbowed me in the eye during a fight she was having with the salesperson over Christmas cards.”
“I am sorry about that,” said the massive potted plant in the corner. Julia might find it easier to talk in a group these days, but she still liked the security of hiding behind the foliage.
Ryan smiled. “It’s okay. She bought me lunch to apologize.”
“You enjoy food shopping,” Elle said. “You can buy your Secret Santa pick some yummy treats.”
Dimitri, Joe, and Harvard laughed hard.
“What?” Elle demanded.
Joe grinned. “There’s no way anything edible would make it to his pick. In fact, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t even make it out of the store.”
“Hey.” Ryan reached for another slice of cake. “I have self-control.”
That caused more laughter. Except from Callum, their grumpy-arsed boss, who was scowling at everyone. And Rachel, who was staring at her phone.
“Don’t make a big deal out of this, okay?” Elle said. “You just pick a name from the bag and get them something small in time for the Christmas party. You don’t have to spend a lot, and it can be a funny gift.”
Oops. She’d mentioned the party.
Unfortunately, that was one of Callum’s trigger words. “Party? There’s going tae be a party an’ all? I didn’t authorize a party.” He searched the room for his office manager. “Julia! Get your arse out from behind that plant and sit at the table like a normal person. I want an explanation for this party crap.”
The plant squeaked, but before Julia could gather the courage to say anything else, her husband spoke up. “We talked about shouting at my wife,” Joe drawled. “Next chat will involve fists.”
“Joe!” Julia snapped.
Callum wasn’t fazed by the threat; he just arched an eyebrow at Joe. “I’m happy to teach you a lesson any time you like.” He eyed the plant again. “When did I authorize a party?”
The screen behind his head sprang to life, and an email appeared on it. It read: Callum, please sign off on the catering for Christmas, Julia. It was followed by a photo of a signed quote from a catering company. And yes, that was Callum’s signature.
“Gotcha.” Ryan grinned. “She came with evidence.”
“That doesn’t say anything about a party,” Callum barked.
“The party’s implied,” Megan, the only other Scot in the room, told him. “Why else would she be catering for Christmas?”
“I thought it was fancy stuff for the kitchen fridge. For people working over Christmas. I wouldn’t have signed off on a party. You know how I feel about parties. They—”
“Have no place in the workplace,” everyone except Rachel replied in unison.
“We go through this every year, Scrooge,” Ryan said to Callum before nodding at Elle. “Don’t worry, I’ve got this covered.” He waggled his phone at her just as the conference room door opened, and Callum’s wife, Isobel, stuck her head in.
“We’re having a party,” she said to her husband. “You will be there. You will have fun, and you won’t ruin anyone else’s night. So stop giving everybody a hard time and suck it up.” Callum opened his mouth, but Isobel pointed a finger at him. “One more word, and I’m making you play Santa.” He shut his mouth with a snap. “Can I get back to manning reception now?”
“Thanks, Isobel.” Ryan beamed at her.
With one last shake of her head at Callum, she closed the door.
“That was genius,” Elle told Ryan.
“Aye.” Callum stared down Ryan. “Guess who’s getting assigned to the next social media diva who turns up demanding a bodyguard to make her look important?”
Ryan held up his phone. “I have your wife on speed dial.”
“I have your contract in my desk drawer.”
“Touché.” Ryan shrugged and helped himself to more cake.
“We can have a bloody party.” Callum almost choked on the words. “But I don’t see the need for a Secret Santa. If this was the ar—”
Elle slapped her palms on the table. “I swear, if you say this isn’t how it’s done in the army, I will ruin your online life. I’m talking volunteering you for every charity involving animals, toddlers, and old people. I will turn you into the patron saint of all things fluffy. Is that what you want?” She glared at her boss, which was pretty hard given that Callum was six foot of intimidating.
“For the love of Prada,” Rachel drawled, putting aside her phone. “Let the minions have their party and their…presents. Is this really the hill you want to die on? An office Christmas party?”
Callum frowned at his business partner. “You hate this crap an’ all.”
“Yes, but I’m aware that the little people need these highlights in their sad, dull lives.”
“Thanks, Rachel.” Elle rolled her eyes. “And FYI, attendance at the Christmas party and participation in the Secret Santa is compulsory for everyone. Not just the little people.”
If a look could turn you into ice, Elle would have been frozen solid.
Rachel tossed her long, dark, expensive hair. “I don’t take orders from the help. I’m in charge here.”
“No,” Callum growled. “I am.”
“In your dreams,” Rachel snapped back.
Dimitri held up his hands. “Great. Now it’ll degenerate into a playground fight where they both repeat ‘I am,’ ‘No, I am,’ until we all want to jump out the window.”
Over her dead body!
Elle slapped her palms on the table again. They were going to end up black and blue at this rate. “I’m not the boss. I don’t own any shares in Benson Security. I’m just a nice person trying to instill some holiday cheer in her workplace. You will all come to the Christmas party that we’re definitely having. You’ll all take part in Secret Santa and do it properly. And you will all enjoy yourselves. Because if you don’t, I will use every hacker skill I possess to turn your life into a living nightmare.” She narrowed her eyes as she looked around the room. “I know everyone’s passwords and all of your secrets. Do. Not. Test. Me.”
Once certain that everyone understood what was at stake, Elle stood. With the press of a button, she lit up the front of her Christmas sweater, making Rudolph’s nose shine bright. Then she smiled at everyone. If her smile looked a bit manic, there was nothing she could do about it. She was about ten seconds and one whining complaint away from turning their meeting into a Christmas massacre.
“You can be really scary,” Megan said with clear approval.
Dimitri nodded. “She’s like a little blue-haired Christmas pixie with a virtual machine gun.”
“Some men find scary sexy.” Harvard winked at her, but everyone knew the ex-CIA operative was really talking to Rachel. For some reason no one could fathom, he thought Rachel was his perfect woman.
Rachel thought he was lint. Something to be brushed off and dismissed.
Elle held up a red, bejeweled Christmas stocking. “In here, you’ll find slips of paper with everyone’s name on them. You take one, don’t tell anyone who you have, and buy a gift for that person. Does everyone understand?”
From the grunts and nods, it was clear they were less than enthused. Honestly. You’d have thought she’d signed them up for rectal examinations. Which wasn’t out of the question if they didn’t start showing some Christmas spirit.
She waved the stocking at Ryan, who managed to take his eyes off the cake long enough to pick a name.
He read it and burst out laughing. “This might be fun after all.”
Not trusting them with the stocking, Elle took it to each person rather than passing it around the room. Julia looked genuinely pleased to be taking part. Joe was his usual amenable and indulgent self. Megan and Dimitri looked bored. Harvard’s eyes lit up when he read his name. Rachel sighed, took a name, and put it straight into her Chanel bag.
“You do realize you have to read it and buy something for the person named on it, right?” Elle asked.
Rachel waved a dismissive hand. “I’ll have someone sort it for me.”
“No.” Elle was firm. “This isn’t a situation where you can call up your personal shopper at Harrods and tell them to wrap something for Secret Santa.”
From the look on Rachel’s face, that’s exactly what she intended to do.
“You need to pick something out personally. It has to have meaning. Even if that meaning is a joke. This is a social event that requires your participation. We talked about this, remember? It was between our chats about the Girl Code and All Poor People Aren’t Lazy.”
“Oh. The talks. Good times.” Megan smiled into the distance, a look of fond remembrance on her face. “We sure know how to rock a girls’ night out.”
“I don’t do girls’ nights out.” Rachel narrowed her eyes at both Elle and Megan.
“We know,” Megan said cheerily. “Which is why we turn up at your apartment uninvited and have girls’ nights in. That way, we can ensure you interact with people in a non-confrontational manner. We’re acclimating you to normal life. Without us, you’d be one step away from running the Conservative Party.”
Rachel cringed. “And sit in the House of Commons? With commoners? If I wanted to go into politics, I’d take up my family’s place in the House of Lords.”
“You’re a walking, talking example of why we need to get rid of our government system,” Megan said. “Scratch that. I don’t care what England does. Once Scotland’s independent, it won’t matter to us how many inbred nobility run England into the ground.”
“Amen to that,” Callum said.
“You do know that I neither need nor want your input in my life, don’t you?” Rachel told Elle and Megan.
“Yes,” they replied at the same time, both grinning widely.
“But luckily for you, we’re in it for the long haul,” Elle said. “Now, don’t forget that you have to buy the present yourself. Or there will be consequences.”
As she turned to wave the stocking at Callum, the door burst open, and Noah and Violet rushed in.
“Sorry we’re late. We found the guy we needed to talk to, but Violet hit him before he could say anything. We’ll get back to him when he wakes up.” Noah’s eyes lit as he caught sight of the stocking. “Are we doing Secret Santa? Fantastic!” Enthusiastically, he reached in for a name.
Violet, meanwhile, had assessed the situation and come to a different conclusion. “No,” she said before turning and walking back out of the room.
“I should have done that.” Callum watched her leave with longing.
“This is going to be great.” Noah beamed at everyone. “We’re having a party too, right?”
And Elle threw back her head and laughed.
Next month, Secret Santa—the gift